St. Joseph girls basketball coach Chris Lindwall could have thought of a thousand ways to begin Saturday afternoon’s FCIAC playoff opener against Stamford.
Watching leading scorer Nancy Stablein crumble to the floor in the first minute of the game was not one of them.
Stablein suffered an apparent knee injury while going up for a shot in the paint just seconds after tip-off, leaving the Cadets without the senior point guard’s 18.5 points per game and tremendous court leadership.
Seventh-seeded Stamford took full advantage, racing out to a 26-5 halftime lead and rolling to a 44-25 victory at the Vito Montelli Gymnasium in Trumbull.
“When you have a game plan that we’ve been working on for two days then you come to shoot-around and you put everything in and it’s the first play of the game, it is a shock,” Lindwall said. “At first I didn’t think it was that bad. I thought she banged knees and she’d be out for a couple of plays. When I got over to here, I knew it was bad.”
By the time the Cadets collected themselves, the Black Knights were well on their way to posting the first big upset of the playoffs.
Stamford (12-9), which suffered a 54-36 setback against St. Joseph in the second-to-last game of the regular season, held the Cadets (17-4) to just two points in the first quarter, led 28-5 early in the third and used the solid ball-handling and foul shooting of Cognetta to seal the victory in the fourth quarter.
Cognetta scored a game-high 18 points, sophomore Kelsey Santagata added 13 points and five rebounds and senior Lauren Schapiro added seven points, three steals and did a nice job sharing the point-guard duties.
“It’s exciting to be here and it’s especially exciting for the seniors,” Cognetta said. “We wanted to come out confident and I think we did that. We just want to come out and play hard and play every game like it’s our last.”
Stamford moves on to face No. 3 Trumbull in the FCIAC Semifinals Tuesday night at Fairfield Ludlowe, looking to prove that anything can happen if a team gets hot at the right time.
“I hope that’s what it is,” Cognetta said. “I don’t want to jinx it, but we’re on a little run and I like where we are right now.”
With St. Joseph obviously rattled by the loss of Stablein, the Black Knights executed their game plan with cold-blooded perfection, forcing the Cadets into an array of mistakes with their full-court press and sealing off the paint behind the strength of Santagata, senior Jasmin Barrett (five points, five rebounds) and sophomore Brianna Gordon (five rebounds).
Stamford had a 10-0 lead before the shell-shocked Cadets scored their first and only basket of the first quarter with 1:10 left.
“They’re a good team and (Stablein) is obviously a fantastic player, one of the best players in the league, and that hurt them,” Stamford head coach Todd Parness said. “But give our girls credit. We came at them hard in the first half and didn’t let down.”
St. Joseph turned the ball over 13 times in the first half, missed it's first seven shots and went 2-for-16 from the floor over the first two quarters.
“That’s the shock,” Lindwall said. “I think it was. When you lose someone like that who these kids look up to it hurts.”
The loss of Stablein, who recently scored the 1,000th point of her career, was devastating from a tactical standpoint. Not only is Stablein the team’s offensive quarterback, but also its top 3-point shooter.
Jess Jowdy filled in admirably at point guard, finishing with four points, seven rebounds and three assists to compliment a 10-point effort by junior Jenn Vazquez. But the ripple effect was too much for the Cadets to overcome.
“When you lose a player of Nancy Stablein’s ability and all the things she’s done for us this year, it’s a very tough adjustment,” Lindwall said. “You lose 18 points a game and you have to make a big adjustment because she has the ball in her hands a lot.”
St. Joseph made a run in the third quarter, outscoring Stamford 12-4 behind six straight points by Vazquez and a big 3-pointer off the bench by senior Taryn Figmic to get to within 30-17, but the gap was just too wide to close.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of these kids for not giving up,” Lindwall said. “They just kept fighting. This is the proudest I’ve been of this team all year.”
Stamford shot well in the first half, hitting on 3 of 8 from behind the 3-point arc, including one by Santagata and another by Cognetta to make it 18-2 in the second quarter.
The Black Knights also scored at will in transition with Cognetta and Schapiro leading the charge.
Stamford appeared to be slowing things down in the third quarter in an attempt to run out the clock, but it’s shift out of high gear hurt more than it helped, allowing the Cadets to gain a glimmer of hope.
Six of Stamford’s eight turnovers came in the third quarter.
“We didn’t intend to do that,” Parness said. “We wanted to keep doing the things we did in the first half. We just got a little sloppy with the ball.”
Stamford made up for it in the fourth, putting the ball in the capable hands of the speedy and athletic Cognetta with St. Joseph going into an early foul mode.
The game turned into a free-throw shooting contest with the two teams going over six minutes without a field goal, combining for 18 trips to the foul line.
“That’s definitely where I wanted to be,” Cognetta said. “Lauren Schapiro did a great job, too. Everyone stepped up. Everyone was strong with the ball and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
Stamford turned the ball over just once in the fourth quarter and went 12-for-15 at the foul line, thanks in large part to Cognetta’s ability to play keep-away. Cognetta went 7-for-8 herself.
“She did a great job at the foul line,” Parness said. “We have complete confidence when the ball is in her hands.”
St. Joseph really had no chance once Stamford made it 33-17 behind Santagata’s conventional 3-point play to open the fourth.
“That’s why Connecticut needs a shot clock,” Lindwall said. “The game has changed, and we need to change with it. Every state around us has a shot clock except for us.”
In the end, St. Joseph couldn’t make up for poor shooting, going just 7-for-43 from the field and 1-for-12 on 3-pointers in the game.
Stamford went 13-for-40 from the floor.
“The goal was to try to get it to 10 before halftime,” Lindwall said. “Then we had a great third quarter and I thought we’d be able to get on a run. We got some shots and some good looks, but the shots didn’t fall for us.”